Modern milking: How a Campton Hills dairy farm went high-tech
Except for watchmaking, raising cows and bottling their milk used to be the biggest of all industries in the Elgin area.
But the census numbers make the disappearance of the cow from Kane County seem unstoppable: From 1,390 farms with cows in 1950 to 78 in 1987 and just five in 2016. From 24,907 cows to 4,285 cows to maybe 600 cows in 2016.
Several hundred people attended a Dairy Farm Breakfast and Open House at the Drendel family's Lindale Holsteins farm west of Hampshire in June 2016. But just months later, the Drendels got out of the milk cow business. So did the Conro family, who had raised cows for five generations at their Sunset Acres farm on the other side of Hampshire.
That leaves just three dairy farms in all of Kane County.
But one of them, Lenkaitis Holsteins on Corron Road in Campton Hills, has enough faith in the future that they recently completed a hi-tech new "roboticized" building for their cattle that can almost function without human supervision.
"Every cow here has a radio frequency identification collar -- sort of a Fitbit for cows," says Sarah Lenkaitis, 32, who manages Lenkaitis Holsteins with her husband Andy, 35, and herdswoman Shannon Fullington. Andy also works full-time away from the farm as an engineer at a company that -- perhaps by no coincidence -- makes the kind of hi-tech livestock equipment that outfits their new barn.
A cow named Firework -- named because she was born on a Fourth of July -- walks into the entrance ramp of one of two narrow milking pens.
"On the traditional dairy farm, cows are all milked twice a day by humans," Andy says. "With this system, cows can come and go from the milking parlor whenever they please, pretty much 24 hours a day."
A computer reads Firework's ID collar, consults her record, decides she is not ready to be milked again yet and opens a side gate. Having hoped to gain access to a special bit of food available only to the cows actually being milked, Firework trudges reluctantly back out of the pen.
But the next cow up, Mandy, has udders swollen with milk. Reading records of how much milk she has given before at what time of day, the computer says she is eligible to be milked again. A different gate opens, allowing her to move forward in the pen. A camera locates her four teats and robotic arms hook up milking tubes onto each of them. They begin squeezing and drawing off the milk toward a chiller tank as the computer measures how much milk has come from each teat.
Through it all, no human has touched any controls or even needed to be paying attention.
Out in the main part of the barn, where Firework now has lined up to eat regular feed, a flat robot that looks like a giant Roomba rolls down the concrete aisle, identifies each cow and dishes out a prescribed amount of feed.
At the end of the aisle, a mechanical sweep pushes the cows' manure into a pile. A giant roller squeezes the liquid out of the waste, leaving behind undigested fiber that looks like brown straw.
Half that straw will be used as the cows' bedding, the other half sold to a landscaper for use as mulch. The liquid part of the manure will be sprayed onto the farms' crop fields, satisfying 80 percent of the farm's fertilizer needs.
Andy Lenkaitis said only two other farms in northeastern Illinois -- one in Malta, one in Maple Park -- have this level of automation.
Things are handled more conventionally on Kane County's most visible surviving dairy farm, the Kenyon Bros. Co., which occupies 200 acres right along South Elgin's northeastern village limits.
Several years ago owner Mike Kenyon gave up enough acres to build South Elgin High School and Kenyon Woods Middle School. But he and five employees still watch over about 200 cows, heifers and bulls.
Kenyon says he remains committed to keeping the family homestead from being developed and has resisted efforts by South Elgin officials to annex into the village. But when he is asked if the farm can continue forever as a home to cows, he answers, "I doubt it."
"My children aren't interested in following me into this business," says Kenyon, who when asked his age admits only to being "older than dirt."
"They can do what they want with the land after I'm gone. But I doubt if they'll subdivide it."
At Luck-E Holsteins in Hampshire, Matt Engel, 44, and his brother Jeff, 36, remain proud defenders of the dairy industry as they look over their 170 milk cows, plus some bulls and heifers. But they acknowledge that money-wise, they're sailing upwind.
"Dairy farmers have gotten too good at what we do," Matt Engel said. "We produce more and more with less feed and less water. I don't think any industry has increased its efficiency as much as we have in the last 100 years. But with so much milk on the market, prices are terrible, basically no different than they were a generation ago. And too many people are turning to drinks like almond milk and soy milk, which are not milk at all."
"Our goal is to stay in the dairy business," Engel says. "Hopefully the dairy economy will improve" before his family has to join their Hampshire neighbors the Drendels and the Conros in selling off their herds.
As for the possibility of installing roboticized, computerized gear like the Lenkaitises', both Kenyon and Engel say they could never afford that.
Andy Lenkaitis says that nationwide, the biggest 5 percent of the farms produce 55 percent of the milk.
The new documentary "Dairies to Prairies" includes a tour of Fair Oaks Farm in Indiana, a mega farm far from villages and cities that takes the economies of scale to almost unbelievable levels -- it has 36,000 cows.
With only one-300th that many cows, can the Lenkaitises succeed? Asked how much they spent on their new super-barn, Andy Lenkaitis answers only, "A lot."
"When we heard about two of the last five Kane dairy farms going out of business, we did ask ourselves, 'What are we getting into here?'" says Andy. "Besides the pressures of volatile milk price and high property taxes, when there get to be so few dairy farms in an area, it's hard to support an infrastructure of veterinarians, nutritionists, equipment dealers and dairies. But our plan is that this barn will be here for 20 years."
And with such an amazing facility, she adds, they plan to expand their income stream by opening their hi-tech facility to tours by school groups, Scouts, civic clubs and the general public starting next spring.
Where to see "Dairies to Prairies" exhibit, film• June 24: Video and exhibit, 2 p.m. at Gail Borden Public Library, 270 N. Grove Ave., Elgin. RSVP to www.gailborden.info.
• June 25-July 18: Exhibit on display at Gail Borden Public Library
• July 19-22: Exhibit on display at Kane County Fair, 525 S. Randall Road, St. Charles
• Aug. 4: Reception at 6:30 p.m. and video screening at 8 p.m. at Serosun Farms, 45W485 Berner Road, Hampshire. RSVP to (847) 683-4796
• Sept. 15: Video screening, wagon rides and tours by Corron Farm Preservation Society, at Gray Willows Farm, 5N949 Corron Road, Campton Township
• September (to be arranged): Video and exhibit at Bartlett Public Library, 800 S. Bartlett Road